Being hired to work in a kitchen is not dependent on ones age, race, or education. Hiring is based on ability, and promotion is based on strengths. I have two sous chefs, both from the same country, but separated by over 30 years in age and the experience of a brutal civil war. Both have earned their place as leaders in my kitchen.
I am late in life running a restaurant kitchen. I was hired at Meridian Pint at the age of 41, and although I have other kitchen management experience, this was my first time opening a restaurant. There was an advantage to doing this at my age: I knew what I wanted. At 41, it also meant that I had had years of experience working with others. I am inherently a people person, but that does not mean I am necessarily good at managing others. On this path, I continue to learn my weaknesses, and as I learn them, I am able to develop the tools to deal with them efficiently, turning them into strengths. I have learned the people skills so necessary to building a strong team, and this is a crucial part of my job.
While it is important to me that I like the people that I hire, it is more important to me that the people I hire work well with others. I am a manager, no longer a line cook in the thick of things, and the people who work for me work more closely with each other than with me. I need the input of those that work for me, and in particular, I need the input of the people that I cannot do without. Everyone is replaceable, of course, including myself, but at the end of the day my success is dependent upon the strengths of others.
My kitchen, like most, is staffed with an “underclass”; people who thrive in adversity and intensity. Often they are immigrants, from poverty, a racial minority, or some combination thereof. Like those who work in other intense fields, emergency services, for instance, many come with traumatic histories, things that none of us want to live through. I have known my share of war survivors, people who have fled villages of headless bodies. And I have known my share of abuse survivors as well. Things neither you nor I would want to live through. Because of these experiences, we in the war zone of the kitchen function well under stress. We bond in intensity. This bond is of course what is most crucial to the functioning of a team. The sense of togetherness is what makes for strength. The lack thereof is what creates a rift. Without the bond, there is no camaraderie, without camaraderie, there is no team work. When the bond does not form it is frustrating, and the person usually does not last; when the bond is broken it is a betrayal. Repair work must happen or we forever part ways.
I work at creating that sense of loyalty to the team. Yes, I want people loyal to me. “I am the guy who hired you, respect me.” However, more importantly, respect the team with whom you work. Bow to peer pressure. Understand that if you have their back, they will have yours. And at the end of the day, understand that the people we all serve, the customer, is truly the task master, and without them, none of us will succeed. A divided kitchen will fail.
I have a team of men and women who work for me, predominantly Latino, though not entirely, who struggle through their own private holocausts to come to work every day and perform. The work is not easy, it does not pay well, and it is filled with unpredictable, acute stress. The greatest satisfaction I take from this work is not the pretty plates, the tasty food, or the happiness of my customers (you come a close second)… it is baring witness to success in a profoundly human way… I do not measure success by material wealth, but by the growth of an individual. I am proud of the men and women who make it, who grow in their profession, and I do not fault those that do not, because, honestly, it really isn’t easy.